Let things change
The other infrastructure issue with e-bikes — and I say this as a fan and occasional user of them — is that absent a well-maintained and _large_ bicycling path network, they actively make bicycling worse for both traditional riders and each other.
It’s the car problem in miniature: if you’re the only car on the road, driving is _great_, but driving in rush hour traffic in even small to medium sized cities is miserable. Similarly, if you’re one of the few e-bike riders around, you can cut through cities like a knife. But any non-trivial number of them reveals instantly the hard limits of bike infrastructure that in most cases was a hostile afterthought: having dozens of e-bike riders of varying levels of skills and aggression all easily maintaining speeds of over 20mph on these paths makes for a hair-raising experience as a traditional rider or worse yet a pedestrian on shared paths. And the additional weight of the batteries makes stopping harder and crashes inevitably more injurious.
The smart thing to do here would be to start taking lanes from cars on popular arteries as e-bike traffic ramps up. My expectation is that what we’ll actually get are blanket e-bike bans in a lot of cities instead. (And that’s not even getting into the ugly failure modes of lithium ion batteries — you really should not be charging large ones inside your residence.)
One of the dumber parts of the struggle to get rid of parking requirements is that cities will often grant exemptions to them if developers grant certain concessions, so now groups that benefit from those concessions fight to keep them. So now we have some "Affordable Housing" organizations fighting to keep them.
Even after reading this, I still don't get e-bikes.
In my 20's I rode a motorcycle and didn't have a car. I liked riding bikes and thought having a motorcycle would be a counter-cultural thing to do. When you ride a motorcycle, you have to wear a helmet in my state. While carrying that helmet, people will approach you unbidden to tell you how a loved one of theirs was killed or maimed on a motorcycle. This leads many, myself included, to buy leather jackets, chaps, boots, and various armors.
Once, I strapped my backpack to the back of my motorcycle poorly, and it fell off but dangled by a bungee for a short distance while being pulled across the pavement at low speed. It was absolutely shredded. This made an impression on me.
Eventually, I decided that rather than don all of this uncomfortable gear and still suffer considerable worry and discomfort, I'd sell my motorcycle and get a sedan. It was a vast improvement on nearly every front excluding the coolness and fun fronts.
I still bike commuted for years in sun, rain and winter, but eventually I had one close call too many. The roads get more and more congested, and all it takes is one idiot to gift you a permanent and/or serious injury. I gave it up with reservation.
So I see e-bikes, and I say, what is this? Is this a slow motorcycle? If so, why isn't this person wearing at least the safety gear of a person on a moped? Why is this slow motorcycle operating on the same pedestrian path my toddler is wobbling down? In the biking community there is a stigma against riding down the sidewalk "like a child". The e-bike community seems to be holding on to the illusion that they are bikers, not motor vehicles. But if you operate at motor vehicle speed, you need to be in the road like a car. Stop operating your e-bike on bike paths "like a child".
The e-bikers might reply, "well, I don't feel safe in the road!" And they would be wise to say that. They can't maintain the speed of traffic around them generally, so they force traffic to take risky actions to get around them. One often has the same trouble on a road bike. In the best case scenario where they are keeping pace with traffic, they are usually doing so in sandals, shorts, and a tee-shirt.
So I don't know, it's a free country I guess, ride your ebike. Yet, if someone offered me a motorcycle that I could ride and get light exercise, I'd still say no. I'll get my light exercise in a way that is less likely to kill or maim me. Meanwhile, please keep your motor vehicle off pedestrian paths. Be an adult! Like, if one saw a guy riding his motorcycle at 15-20 mph down my pedestrian path, one would surely think, "that guy is an asshole." That's what I think about you when I see you on a one-wheel or a e-bike anywhere but in a road for motor vehicles.
I'll wrap this up by saying that my old boss, the man that convinced me to not be a wimp and buy the motorcycle in the first place, wrecked his motorcycle last year and lost a foot. He walks on a prosthetic now, but it causes him significant pain, and he's suffering depression as a result. A truck with a trailer pulled out in front of him or something. Might have been the car drivers fault, might not have been, but either way, a small error and a moment of lack of focus cost a man his foot.
I am a long time bike commuter in Minneapolis, and I'm noticing more e-bikes out there on the bike paths. Like other commenters, I have a few safety concerns. But, to be honest, I am probably biased because I find it irritating to be passed by some out of shape person who isn't even pedaling. Some pettiness may be coloring my perspective. So I try to be a little more fair-minded.
The truth is that riding any kind of bike is a fairly dangerous activity, but, on balance, getting more people out there using bikes to get around has got to be a good thing. Safety concerns can be addressed. For example, maybe ebikes could have speed limiters that prevent them going more than maybe 15 mph. Or maybe the electric assist automatically turns off when the bike is going downhill.
And we are far from having bike lanes that are too crowded for both ebikes and regular bikes. More and more people who bike regularly should lead to more development of safer places to ride, like protected bike lanes.
(Now, when it comes to e-mountain bikes on dirt trails built for human powered bikes, I embrace my pettiness. I have zero patience for people who spend $10,000 on what is effectively a motorbike because they are too lazy to huff and puff up the hills with the rest of us.)
Matt, I can’t believe you didn’t include a footnote with the number of shoes your grandfather found people needed. Please tell us.
There's a lot that could be said about this topic, much of it by people with more information than I have, although I did have the experience of using a non-E bike (exclusively) for nine months in the late aughts, but the three chief concerns that I think would benefit form being addressed beyond better route infrastructure (which many commenters are correctly already discussing and is obviously incredibly important for both safety and convenience / desirability) are:
(1) Better prosecution of bike thievery. Having an expensive but easily (and frequently) stolen capital asset is a huge problem and a massive disincentive to own a bike in an urban area. This seems like both an enforcement and a legislative problem.
(2) Parking for bicycles: especially with thievery as a problem, but even without, there's just not a great way to *store* bikes at most destinations, whether commercial or business, and they're enough of a size and hassle to make "grin and bear it" or similar ad-hoc solutions like wrestling a bike onto the elevator and keeping it in one's office impractical
(3) The Achilles' heel of the bicycle is that it is *incredibly* ill-suited to carrying heavy and/or bulky items (let alone other people), but you're not going to find a more efficient way in either monetary or time savings to buy paper towels than a Costco run. This doesn't make bikes a poor choice for commuting in instances where that isn't a concern, and so there can be beneficial effects of replacing the marginal car trip with the marginal bike trip, but it makes the bike impractical as a car replacement to the incredibly wide class of transportation problems that aren't "depart and return as a single person who is at most lightly laden." Certainly lots of trips do fit that bill -- e.g., office worker commutes -- but the upper bound of bike utility for transport just doesn't seem high enough to have much of an effect on product-based commerce (but maybe it could for service-based ones catering to individuals?)
Great article, but you’re missing causality here:
> The problem is that the technological transition to the Automobile Era coincided with the rise of a very prescriptive land use planning regime.
Instead it’s the rise of cars that created an ever more restrictive land-use, transportation, and planning regime. There are many reasons for this but the biggest is that cars are outrageously dangerous and car crashes kill tons of people. In the 20’s they put up monuments in a bunch of cities memorializing all the children slain by reckless motorists.
But cars are useful, and the motorist lobby successfully engineered regulatory capture over the entire transportation/land-use world by positioning the entire problem as obsolete development patterns and careless pedestrians, and technocrats of the era responded by building stricter and stricter prescriptions to require what we now think of as “normal suburbia” to be built, and to be the only thing that can be built, on the theory that it would be better for everyone.
This same era of technocrats later instituted redlining, saw the freeways as a convenient mechanism to demolish and wall off the black and brown neighborhoods, and bulldozed a lot of what was left to build the notorious “tower in a park” housing projects. Really a profoundly terrible legacy.
There’s a lot here that I agree with, as a bike commuter of over 15 years. One topic that goes unaddressed is space usage on the ROAD. It’s taken forever to get solid bicycling infrastructure in a few cities. Introducing a bunch of electric scooters and bikes creates a third mode of traffic - going much faster than the bicyclists a lot of the time, and too slow for the cars. It is a markedly more dangerous commute with them on the road. There are a lot of accidents.
My city is now considering banning the scooter rentals because they’re a real hazard, and not only because of space usage. Due to the low barrier to entry, they’re often ridden by people who have no idea what they’re doing, are drunk, and don’t wear helmets. (This is also a problem with by-the-ride bike rental, but the physical work involves operates as a natural constraint on numbers.)
I think some numbers would be useful here.
* A normal parking space is...180 square feet? That's the smallest number I am seeing on google. That's just the parking space. That's doesn't account for the other space in the parking lot the cars to dive through -- more than doubling the space needed for each sparking space.
* The average rental apartment seems to be under 900 square feet.
* This suggests that a 5 story apartment building would need twice as much space on the ground, simply to to allow for the parking spaces -- assuming just one car per apartment. (If you look at aeriel views of apartment developments, you see that the parking lots are VASTLY larger than the buildings themselves.
Honestly, I think that Matt has failed to connect these numbers to height limits on buildings. When the expectation is street parking, there's some efficiency on space but there is also a hard upper limit on available spaces. Street parking in Brooklyn probably only allows for like...two floors of apartments (at one car/apartment). Maybe three?
Love that e-bikes are part of the discussion even in these circles! I’ve been riding them for 6 years now. Early adopter because I live in East Harlem and there were tons of delivery guys on them and I just thought they seemed cool. For me it was all about how quickly I could get to the pool where I swim (1.5 miles away) and volleyball leagues around the city (.5 to 2 miles away). The ebike proved amazing for both. I had kids 5 years ago and quickly started bringing my daughter everywhere (daycare and errands) on the bike. When we had our second, we got the radwagon and it has become our “bus” for getting the kids everywhere. A couple things make this doable for us: 1) we live on the first floor of our condo building. Bringing these big heavy bikes in and out can be hard for people who live in walk ups. We need to build better safety storage for bikes. I leave the bikes out during the day (locked) and then bring in at the end of the day. 2) we have bike lanes all around East Harlem and there are so many bikes that people GENERALLY are pretty respectful of bikes.
I was always struck that the Dutch don’t wear helmets despite being a bike culture. Then I realized that when everyone rides bikes, car drivers are also bike riders and they are very aware of bikes as a result. You need less safety mechanisms. This is becoming more true in NYC, but still far from widespread enough. The white bikes you see on corners are memorials of where deaths on bikes have happened and they are far to frequent to be comfortable.
The radwagon is so popular and cool that I use it to bring my daughter and two of her friends from school to their afterschool program. Saving other parents the trip and also getting them there super quickly.
I rode motorcycles growing up (stopped when I moved to NYC 20 years ago after a few close calls) and I think the speed and power of an ebike feels relaxed compared to the motorcycles I used to ride. But I’m very aware of how frightening they can be to pedestrians and bike riders due to the speed. Hopefully this awareness builds are more people ride and it becomes more common.
Finally - alternate street parking is like my biggest complaint about NYC. It seems SOOOO dumb to charge nothing for something so valuable. To take such valuable space for cars when garage parking is $300-750/month (more in some places) is just insane. Tax revenue, additional bikes lanes. More spaces for outdoor dining. More pedestrian spaces, less congestion. Who advocates for free parking?
Love the article. Our cargo e-bike has been a game changer in our ability to be a one-car family. And tons of them are now appearing at our kids’ school.
Parking minimums are slowly being torn down in our city — can’t wait to see where this all goes.
Has Matt's post got you interested in ebiking? I'm 63, I live in a hilly area, I have an ebike, and I'm an engineer who understands what matters in an ebike.
Matt is 100% correct that the biggest benefit of an ebike is climbing hills. If I commuted around Amsterdam I wouldn't bother. With a regular bike I go 15mph on the flat, double the power on an ebike and go 20, it makes a few minutes difference on a commute. But climbing hills, it is really hard to climb a long hill on a bicycle! So if you live where it is flat and you don't ride your bike you might not ride your new ebike either. But if hills are killing you it makes a huge difference.
So what ebike to buy? The expensive ones put the motor at the cranks (called mid-drive). This is best for climbing steep hills because shifting gears helps you and the motor, both can spin faster even as the bike slows down. Cheaper ones put the motor in the hub, when you slow on a hill the motor slows too, it generates less power and can overheat if you push it too hard. So mid-drive is better, but hub drive is cheaper. The decision comes to hills. If your area has mild hills hub drive can be fine (more on this to come), if you have steep long hills mid-drive might be necessary. How do you know if you have steep hills? If you have a derailleur bike and on the hills you shift to 1st and it is still hard going you have steep hills. If 1st climbs the hill OK but you are now at walking speed and balancing the bike gets hard you have steep hills. If your experience is less severe hub drive is probably fine.
Another thing that costs money is a torque sensor. This is a sensor at the cranks that senses how hard you are pushing on the pedals. With a torque sensor the ebike multiplies your effort. It is pretty wonderful, like riding a bike except you are way more fit. Cheaper ebikes drop the torque sensor and use a simpler sensor that monitors how fast the cranks are turning. If you start climbing a hill a torque sensor ebike can tell and it puts on more power. A crank speed ebike can't tell. To get more power you manually increase the assist on the control screen. In the end a torque sensor feels better but both work. Mid-drives tend to have torque sensors built-into the drive. Hub drive torque sensors are a separate and most hub drive ebikes go for the cheaper solution, but this is just market pressure, torque sensor hub drive exists and works fine.
If you buy a hub drive the manufacturer will tout a top speed. You might think 25mph is better than 20mph, but the opposite is true. In real biking the only time you go 25 is down a hill and you don't need the motor. A hub motor geared for a 25mph top speed is worse on the hills, on a hill the motor wants a low gear for the same reason you do. An ideal hub motor top speed would be 18mph. 18mph is plenty fast on a bicycle and the lower gearing really helps on the hills. But you won't find an 18mph hub drive bike, 18mph top speed sounds lame and 25mph sounds better in the showroom.
E-bikers don't have a natural political constituency to advocate for them, either. The traditional bicycling advocacy groups tend to be dominated by the spandex set, and are at best ambivalent to e-bikes.
E-bikers, get involved in your local bike advocacy group! We need supply side reform (more bike infrastructure) not rationing and austerity (banning e-bikes from existing trails).
Absent in this discussion are kick scooters (esp. electrical kick scooters): here, they are mostly operated through sharing apps and they seem to fill a big need but create a mess as their users manage to act like very fast pedestrians on the pavements, chaotic cyclists on cycle paths and erratic or near-suicidal drivers on the road.
I wish I had more time to talk about this subject, because it's one that's very dear to my heart, so all I'll say as a top level comment for now is that I'm so excited that you've gotten into cycling, Matt, and I'm glad you acknowledge how scarce space needs to be reallocated to not make everything so dang car-centric.
Unpopular opinion: The aggressive biking and biking setups in Amsterdam makes being a pedestrian more dangerous. Copenhagen seemed to have a better model.